Gustave Charpentier’s Louise – a survey of the recordings
by Ralph Moore
Gustave Charpentier’s hit opera Louise – which he called a “roman musical” (musical novel) – was premiered on 2 February 1900, and although the premiere of Tosca preceded it on 14 January, that seems more like a continuation of 19C opera, so Louise can thus be considered the first 20C opera; indeed, its style and subject matter straddle both centuries – or, if you prefer another image, it is Janus-like in that it looks both backward and forward in plot, setting, manner and mood. It is, in effect, the French take on the emerging Italian genre of verismo, combining a domestic, “kitchen sink” drama against the back-drop of a Romanticised depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, and is as much a love-song to the “Cité d’amour” as a celebration of the love between a man and a woman. Its central scene – in both senses of “central”, chronologically and thematically – is the ecstatic, extended duet of Act III Scene I, figuring both those passions.
Charpentier (1860-1956) was socially progressive and Louise incorporates elements of “social realism” in its depiction of working class life and even points forward to “women’s liberation from the patriarchy”. Meanwhile, the art form of opera was becoming increasingly polarised, as characterised by the two most important opera companies in Paris: Louise is redolent of the populist spirit of the Opéra-Comique as opposed to the traditional “Grand Opera” aesthetic of the Paris Opéra. In four acts and five scenes, the opera requires four lead singers but also ten dressmakers on sewing machines and a host of Montmartre street-people; we are not far from the Paris of La bohème and La rondine with the “Cris de Paris, voix de la rue” and the darker passages in those street scenes are both musically and topically reminiscent of exchanges among the characters in Il tabarro. Those vignette roles are usually filled by members of the chorus but a few of them, such as the Noctambulist and Irma, are sufficiently prominent to require legitimate soloists. I append a list of those supplementary parts and do not name the cast who sing them in the recordings as they are so numerous.
Recent reacquaintance with the Franco-Belgian dramatic soprano Berthe Monmart led me to seek out some of her recordings, and I remembered that I had on my shelves her 1956 recording of Louise which, despite its antiquity, is still considered by many lovers of French opera to be the most attractive and authentic version. I was surprised to find that it had never been reviewed on MusicWeb – nor, apparently, despite the fact that Louise continued to be a repertoire staple during the first half of the 20C, has any of the handful of other recordings available apart from the 1935 severely abridged version, sanctioned by the composer and recorded in his presence, starring Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill. It has otherwise been recorded only twice more in the studio by singers of the calibre of Cotrubas and Domingo (1976), and Sills and Gedda (1977) – so those last two studio recordings were made nearly half a century ago. There are also two live recordings of note: a 1943 Met radio broadcast conducted by Beecham and starring Grace Moore and Raoul Jobin, and another with Felicity Lott and Jerome Pruett from Belgium in 1983 – and that’s it; not that many recordings, then, for so successful an opera – only six in all.
Although she did not create the role of Louise, two months after the premiere the famous Scots soprano Mary Garden made her Opéra-Comique debut in it, replacing an ailing Marthe Rioton, and it became a signature role for her. Caruso and Geraldine Farrar sang it at the Met shortly thereafter but since the 1950 revival at the Paris Opéra to celebrate the composer’s 90th birthday, it has been staged only sporadically. There was, for example, a San Francisco production in 1999 with a dream cast of Renée Fleming, Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey and Felicity Palmer, but revivals remain rare. However, its most famous aria, “Depuis le jour”, was and remains a favourite concert and recital item among star sopranos – not least, Maria Callas, who sang it with melting emotionality, despite an element of flap in her high notes.
The music is not quite like any other despite passing resemblances to Puccini; I hear little of the Massenet or Gounod school but it does make use of leitmotifs and is unfailingly tonal and melodic. Charpentier wrote and set his own words – with a few additions from Symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux – producing a text which is naturalistic and devoid of the preciousness and pretentiousness which can afflict some French librettos. The opera has a nice balance, the rumbustious, crowd-scene Act II being sandwiched between two intimate, domestic scenes before the final, painful family conflict and Louise’s dramatic liberation in the Act IV dénouement – and the music is so consistently engaging throughout that I am surprised we do not hear it more often in modern opera houses.
Eugène Bigot, 1935; studio, abridged, mono; Nimbus; Naxos
Le Choeurs Raugel & Orchestra Paris
Louise – Ninon Vallin (soprano)
Julien – Georges Thill (tenor)
Le Père – André Pernet (bass-baritone)
La Mère – Aimée Lecouvreur (mezzo-soprano)
Irma – Christiane Gaudel (soprano)
This is an abridgement by the composer but is really just highlights, as it runs to only 70 minutes and concentrates on arias and duets, with only snippets of the crowd scenes. Nonetheless, given the excellence of the singing and the fact that Charpentier presided over the recording by French Columbia, it must be considered an essential supplement to a recording of the complete score – and there is a case for arguing that the opera is overlong, as the full score runs to around two-and-three-quarter hours.
This has twice been comprehensively reviewed here on MusicWeb by my colleagues Jon Woolf and Robert Hugill over two decades ago and I refer you to their reviews for their sound opinions and more detailed background information.
The first voice we hear is the great Georges Thill. I make no secret of my estimation of Thill as a kind of ideal; his diction is pellucid, his tone heroic and he hardly ever sang a bum note. Nobody since has sung Julien’s music with such a combination of grace, elegance and power. The pure-toned Ninon Vallin is Louise, sounding remarkably fresh and girlish for a singer nearly fifty. As with Grace Moore in her live Met performance next below, she does not milk “Depuis le jour” for every drop of sentimentality but sings out with a kind of childlike candour. Louise’s parents are also ideally sung; André Pernet’s warm, steady, yet doleful bass perfectly delineates the world-weary father; Aimée Lecouvreur is a convincingly shrewish and impatient mother, but dark-voiced, not screechy. The chorus members are necessarily rather distanced in the sound picture but sing beautifully and are as robust and enthused as one could wish. Bigot is wholly idiomatic, encompassing both the swooning Romantic languor and the bustling energy of the street and workshop music.
Anyone who loves Charpentier’s music needs to hear and own this as an adjunct to a complete recording – vintage sound notwithstanding, this might spoil you, as nothing else comes up to its standard.
Sir Thomas Beecham, 1943; live radio broadcast, mono; Naxos; Arkadia
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Louise – Grace Moore (soprano)
Julien – Raoul Jobin (tenor)
Le Père – Ezio Pinza (bass)
La Mère – Doris Doe (mezzo-soprano)
Le Noctambule – Alessio de Paolis (tenor)
Irma – Maxine Stellman (soprano)
This again has something of a dream cast, especially Pinza slumming it in a secondary role – but what a delight to hear the Father sung with such tender nobility of tone and depth of characterisation. It offers not only the full score but even includes a few minutes of dialogue between the lovers at the end of Act I Scene ii , between the Mother and Louise in Scene iii, a bit more in Act II Scene iii and a longer passage Act III Scene iv when the mother begs Julien to permit Louise to visit her sick father, all of which are missing from the supposedly complete Fournet recording below. Again, the sound is “historical” but perfectly tolerable – apart from a nasty bit of crackly interference in Act II Scene II – and the performance is so good that one soon ignores any sonic limitations.
The security and ardour of the singing and playing in the opening scene are wonderfully reassuring that this will be a superb performance; lucky audience that day. Beecham is obviously relishing the Romanticism of this pulsing, surging music and Raoul Jobin is in rapturous voice – dark, long-breathed, replete with squillo – virtually on the same level as Thill. Grace Moore is an impassioned, youthful-sounding Louise – she also made a fine film of the opera in 1938. Both lead singers have beautifully clear French diction – as do Pinza and Doris Doe, who has an appropriately dark timbre and sounds constantly disgruntled; perfect. The supporting cast is strong, too, with famous comprimario tenor Alessio de Paolis a hard-voiced but very expressive Noctambulist. The seamstresses are a lively bunch featuring some pleasing individual singers. The huge, complex street scene in Act III Scene iii is directed in masterly fashion by Beecham and sung with huge verve by the chorus.
It is strange to think of this opera being performed while Paris was still Nazi-occupied, yet it exudes joie de vivre – or perhaps it acted as an antidote to and consolation for what seemed lost.
Jean Fournet, 1956; Philips, mono
Chœurs et Orchestre du Théâtre Nationale de l’Opéra-Comique
Louise – Berthe Monmart (soprano)
Julien – André Laroze (tenor)
Le Père – Louis Musy (baritone)
La Mère – Solange Michel (mezzo-soprano)
Le Noctambule – Louis Rialland (tenor)
Irma – Andréa Guiot (soprano)
This presents the almost complete score (see above regarding a few short cuts) and comes with a libretto and an English translation.
Berthe Monmart was a great dramatic soprano, trained in the eponymous role by the composer himself. She can sing softly and delicately but has impressive reserves of power. She sings “Depuis le jour” straightforwardly, but also employing refined, delicate dynamics, then unleashing her voice on the top notes to stunning effect; the crescendo on the top B of “heureuse” is wonderful. André Laroze has a bright, light lyric tenor with plenty of penetration and despite other tenors such as Domingo having more luxuriant voices, he demonstrates the advantage of having a true French tenor in this music, especially when it comes to the inflection of the words. He did nor record much but sang regularly at the Opéra-Comique in the 50s until his career was curtailed by the necessity of surgery; he went on to live a long life, dying at ninety in 2002. His serenade at the end of Act II is passionately full-voiced and the love duet in Act III with Monmart is suffused with ecstatic ardour. Solange Michel is a slightly lighter-voiced mezzo than usually sings the Mother but she is attractive-toned and precise with both the text and the music. Louis Musy is likewise not the usual dark bass-baritone but as a fixture for many years at the Opéra-Comique as both singer and director, he is imbued with their singing tradition, very neat and graceful in his verbal and musical phrasing – a fine vocal actor, without the weight of Pinza or the gruffness which characterise the depictions of the Father by such as Bacquier.
Fournet’s affection for the score comes through and the easy flexibility of his conducting is another great asset, even if the orchestra is necessarily rather distanced. However, that slight remoteness lends a dreamlike atmosphere to the grand choral scenes and even if ensembles can sound a bit congested they are riotously effective, enhanced by the authenticity of the contributions of all the cast – perfect French accents, perfect French style.
Copies of the CD set are currently hard to come by; fortunately, it is available in its entirety on YouTube.
Georges Prêtre, 1976; studio, stereo; Sony
Ambrosian Opera Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra
Louise – Ileana Cotrubas (soprano)
Julien – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Le Père – Gabriel Bacquier (baritone)
La Mère – Jane Berbié (mezzo-soprano)
Le Noctambule – Michel Sénéchal (tenor)
Irma – Lyliane Guitton (soprano)
My attachment to this recording stems from it being how I became acquainted with this opera on LP, but trying to assess it objectively, I think it has a great deal going for it: excellent analogue stereo sound – such a pleasure after the cramped mono versions – a conductor steeped in the tradition – and not pushing too hard, as Prêtre occasionally could – a superb orchestra and the go-to-chorus of the era and two very sympathetic lead singers in their most youthful, attractive voice. Domingo was not yet sounding too nasal or stretched and his French is very much better than I remember. There was always a specially plangent and touching quality about Cotrubas’ timbre and she was particularly good at portraying suffering women of spirit – furthermore, Romanians, in my experience, sing in excellent French. The parents are two old hands in the genre – not exactly veterans at this stage of their careers but already very experienced vocal actors. It is true however, that Bacquier’s baritone dried out very early and Berbié has an edge in her tone, so if you prefer more mellifluous voices in those roles, look elsewhere to predecessors such as Pinza and Lecouvreur or even to coevals like van Dam and Dunn. Michel Sénéchal makes a very distinctive and engaging Noctambulist/Prince of Fools.
In truth, I would want this recording just for Cotrubas’ performance – the way she sighs “Paris!” to close Act I is emblematic of her gift for pathos – and Domingo is also a highly sympathetic hero, but Prêtre’s management of the crowd scenes and the excellence of the supporting cast – such as John Noble as the Ragman and Shirley Minty as Gertrude, whose tangy mezzo is very similar to that of Huguette Tourangeau – are also compelling reasons to own this. So much about this is attractive – not just Cotrubas’ delectable “Depuis le jour”, which emerges as a genuine emotional outpouring, not just a vocal showpiece – but also the orchestral playing, such as the lovely Prélude which precedes that aria. The stereo balances are very atmospheric; voices waft in and out from a distant perspective creating a real sense of being outdoors and the intermittent chatter of the sewing machines in the seamstress scene is very effective. Having said that, for all their enthusiasm, dedication and professionalism, unsurprisingly, the British comprimarios do not sound as authentically French as Fournet’s.
The score is absolutely complete, as are the next two recordings. You may hear the whole recording on YouTube.
Julius Rudel, 1977; studio, stereo; EMI
Children’s Choir of the Resurrection; Chorus & Orchestra of the French National Opera
Louise – Beverly Sills (soprano)
Julien – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Le Père – José van Dam (bass-baritone)
La Mère – Mignon Dunn (mezzo-soprano)
Le Noctambule – Martyn Hill (tenor)
Irma – Eliane Lublin (soprano)
It is fair to say that both lead singers here began and peaked in their careers early, such that although Sills was only in her late forties and Gedda his early fifties at the time of this recording, their voices were showing signs of wear– and as any of my regular readers are all too well aware, I was never much of a fan of that tenor’s fundamental timbre, in any case, for all that others deify him. The singers playing the parents were respectively the same age (Mignon Dunn, born 1928) and considerably younger (José van Dam, born 1940), potentially placing a strain on dramatic credibility.
The sound is full and spacious but my heart does not leap when I hear Gedda attack Julien’s opening apostrophe to Louise and Sills’ soprano has an edge in it which does not please; top notes shriek. “Depuis le jour” is sung with great artistry and sensitivity but the grit in her tone and pulse in her vibrato render it unlovely. She was a treasurable artist; I am a great fan and love her – but she sounds too old here and Gedda sounds like her uncle. They were both excellent multilinguists and sing wholly idiomatic French. I do like Rudel’s conducting, too – I think he remains under-rated; the music unfolds with the kind of relaxed, insouciant disregard for strict bar lines which suits Charpentier’s rhapsodic style – but when mum and dad sound younger than their frustrated offspring, it is time to object. Mignon Dunn is fully immersed in the character of the Mother and had a sumptuous voice; van Dam sounds more like an elegant boulevardier than a worn-out ouvrier; I smile when he sings “Je sens que je ne suis plus jeune” (I feel as if I am no longer young). Such a lovely voice – and so wrong for the role.
OK; enough – you get the picture. No.
The whole recording is available on YouTube. Listen and tell me I’m wrong.
Sylvain Cambreling, 1983; live, digital; Erato Warner
Chœurs et Orchestre Symphonique de l’Opéra de Belgique
Louise – Felicity Lott (soprano)
Julien – Jerome Pruett (tenor)
Le Père – Ernest Blanc (baritone)
La Mère – Rita Gorr (mezzo-soprano)
Le Noctambule – Christian Jean (tenor)
Irma – Anne-Marie Dur (soprano)
I confess that I came to this recording with no great expectations. I have never much warmed to Flott while acknowledging that she has legion fans and good for her. Still, given the relative paucity of recordings of Louise, I knew that I had to listen to this if I was going to produce a credible/creditable survey, so here goes…
The sound is extraordinarily present – a real earful. The orchestra bursts upon the eardrum in the prelude – then Jerome Pruett’s tenor is properly distanced, gradually approaching nearer. Dame Felicity was here only in her mid-thirties and in excellent voice, fresh and charming – but her “Depuis le jour” makes no great impression, in that it is …nicely sung and no more. Pruett, just past forty, was a light lyric tenor, small in volume but sappy and ardent of tone; they both sound wholly convincing as young lovers and sing in admirably convincing French. The difference in vocal heft, however, becomes noticeable when the veteran Rita Gorr chips in; you suddenly notice how large a real “Big Beast” operatic voice sounds when juxtaposed with his. The same is true of celebrated French baritone Ernest Blanc, also in his late fifties, a veteran of Bayreuth with an international reputation; he is not much stretched by the role but sounds emotionally, not vocally, tired and makes a sympathetic pater familias.
I find Cambreling’s conducting a bit heavy and foursquare, without the lilt and flexibility of Bigot, Beecham and Prêtre – just serviceable, no more. There is a lack of brilliance in those street scenes; they fall a bit flat and the company voices are not as impressive as those in the best versions. Tenor Christian Jean is more than competent but not as characterful as Sénéchal and his contributions are undermined by Cambreling’s slow, stolid direction – such that it makes me feel as if the opera merits the criticism that it is too long. Whole passages seem to drag, as if insufficiently underpinned by conductorial grip. In a word, it is boring. Bigot, Beecham and Prêtre provide much more convincing advocacy of Charpentier’s musical invention.
This is a live recording so there is a bit of coughing and some stage noises – clunking cutlery in the domestic scenes, creaking and stomping feet in the street parties – but nothing too distracting; the main problem here is the lethargic conducting and the much more distinctive competition provided by previous contributions.
As above, the 1935 excerpts are essential listening and the Met broadcast is very good, but if you want stereo sound and the complete score, of the three recordings which offer that, I favour the Prêtre version, even if it is not quite as Gallic as the older recordings. It might be nearly fifty years old as I write, but it comes up fresh with every listening. However, I am almost as equally attached to the even more venerable, slightly cut, Fournet recording for its sense of ensemble and authenticity. Sample them online and make your choice according to own choice; devotees like me will want them all.
Historical: Beecham 1943
Mono: Fournet 1956
Stereo: Prêtre 1976*
List of supporting roles:
Camille – (soprano)
Gertrude – (soprano)
Elise – (soprano)
Gavroche – (soprano
Première – (soprano)
Apprentie – (soprano)
Chiffonière – (soprano)
Blanche – (soprano)
Suzanne – (mezzo-soprano)
Laitière – (soprano)
Madeleine – (soprano)
Balayeuse – (mezzo-soprano)
Plieuse – (soprano)
Glaneuse – (soprano)
Marguerite – (soprano)
Chiffonnier – (bass)
Bricoleur – (bass)
1st Philosophe – (tenor)
2nd Philosophe – (baritone)
Chansonnier – (baritone)
Sculpteur – (bass)
Étudiant – (tenor)
Poète – (tenor)
Peintre – (baritone)
Chant’habits – (tenor)
1st Guard – (baritone)
2nd Guard – (bass)
Apprenti – (child soprano)